Melissa Benn new book, School Wars: The Battle for Britain´s Education is the latest in a long line of academic research which highlights the incredible gulf between Britain’s social classes. She writes:
“21st-century Britain remains a staggeringly unequal society in terms of education provision. Researching my latest book, School Wars: the Battle for Britain’s Education, I visited the country’s richest and poorest schools. Schools such as Wellington College, set in 400 acres of lush Berkshire countryside. With annual fees approaching £30,000, a year at Wellington costs more than the salary (around £25,000) of the average UK citizen”
It is clear that Benn writes from a liberal perspective and appears to very much support the comprehensive ideal, yet despite this apparent bias, a lot of her arguments are compelling. For example, she (like many others) attacks the governments adherence to the academies programme. Firstly, she argues that “academy results cannot always be trusted, with evidence in recent years of “gaming” – vocational qualifications being used used to artificially boost school league tables.” Furthermore, she quotes Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kid’s Company, who wrote of the shiny academies which, quietly rid themselves of the most disturbed kids. Lastly, she criticises the new policy as it is cutting funding to the more traditional comprehensive school. According to former headteacher and Liberal Democrat councillor Peter Downes, a fierce critic of the coalition’s education policy, “This is directing resources to the most privileged. In this way, life gets harder for schools at the bottom of the heap.”
Relating to the recent riots, Benn clearly finds the media´s knee jerk reactions simplistic and counter productive, she asks for ” less panic, and hyperbolic talk of punishment.” Rather, we should fight for a “fairer school system, the creation of strong, mixed schools in every community.”
Benn´s book reminds me of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett´s research, ´The Spirit Level´ (2009) which claims that the greater inequality a society has, the greater the social problems. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UK sits at the top of many of their inequality charts and accordingly our high levels of social problems reflect this inequality. Of course it is tempting to create a causal link between unequal education and the social unrest of the past week. Perhaps, if we enjoyed a greater amount of educational equality, young people would not feel quite so resentful and pessimistic about their future.
Yet, like all research, The Spirit Level (and I am sure, Benn’s book) is subject to fierce criticism…thus the debate goes on…